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Publisher's Summary

The potato - humble, lumpy, bland, familiar - is a decidedly unglamorous staple of the dinner table. Or is it? John Reader's narrative on the role of the potato in world history suggests we may be underestimating this remarkable tuber. From domestication in Peru 8,000 years ago to its status today as the world's fourth largest food crop, the potato has played a starring - or at least supporting - role in many chapters of human history. In this witty and engaging book, John Reader opens our eyes to the power of the potato.

Whether embraced as the solution to hunger or wielded as a weapon of exploitation, blamed for famine and death or recognized for spurring progress, the potato has often changed the course of human events. Reader focuses on 16th-century South America, where the indigenous potato enabled Spanish conquerors to feed thousands of conscripted native people; 18th-century Europe, where the nutrition-packed potato brought about a population explosion; and today's global world, where the potato is an essential food source but also the world's most chemically-dependent crop. Where potatoes have been adopted as a staple food, social change has always followed. It may be "just" a humble vegetable, John Reader shows, yet the history of the potato has been anything but dull.

©2009 John Reader; (P)2009 Audible Ltd

Critic Reviews

"[T]his accessible account embraces the latest scholarship and addresses the failings of previous works on the subject. Indeed the book, like the tuber it describes, fills a void: the spud now has the biography it deserves." (The Economist)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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Potato Story

The best of "one subject / one food" books that I've read (and I try to read them all). The way my brain works is that I understand the world best through a narrow lens. The potato is a narrative in which it is possible to hang the major changes of civilization, including the move from subsistence to surplus farming, industrialization, and migration. Did you know that China is now the largest grower of potato's? Or that it was the potato that allowed Europe to finally escape the Malthusian trap of population growth and starvation? Wonderful, amazing and beautiful book. Since reading I've considerably upped my potato consumption (a great source of vitamins and energy with little poor effects).

10 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Andy
  • Westport, CT, United States
  • 03-04-10

better than fries

John Reader does a great job taking us through the history of the potato, both in terms of its evolution as a plant and its interesting geography.
Beyond that, you learn a great deal about what led to, as well as the tragic consequences of the Irish potato famine. Hyder delivers a terrific narration in his wonderful British accent.

10 of 10 people found this review helpful

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Expected more

We already knew potatoes came from Peru and learned they were basically peasant food, which was fed to the Bolivians while they extracted silver from the mines. It move on to Ireland, where once again, it was subsistence food, but soon was regarded as pretty healthy. The population soared to 8 million mostly on potatoes. Until the potato famine that is. Next we are beaten with the details of such things as the corn laws and the painstaking details of how the discovered copper and lime could make a suitable fungicide. I thought we would learn about for instance, who invented French fries or mashed potatoes. The cover looked fun. This was a rather dry, academic study that didn't teach me as much as I had expected it would. Maybe a book like the History of the world in six glasses would have made this more engaging. Something like history of the world in four grains. With a couple hours devoted to each continents contribution.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • S
  • Orillia, ON, Canada
  • 09-24-13

Not what it says it will be

I was looking forward to a botanical history of the potato as well as an agricultural history. This was a political history and near the end of the book I found I was just counting dangling participles . . . there were glimmerings of interesting material . . . and it just didn't measure up to my expectations! (I had just finished the History of Salt - which I enjoyed immensely, and this was a real let-down!)

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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the unexpected reason humans thrived

When I listened to Turning Points in Modern History by Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, I was really taken with his surprising and delicious history of the potato. I had no idea how important the potato was in building human civilization. That lecture series caused me to seek out this book. In the past I have enjoyed reading about the history of coal (I recommend Barbara Freese's wonderfully rich history), uranium, and other single subjects that appear to have the potential to be boring but end up being anything but boring. It is the love for this type of history that led me to the book Salt by Mark Kurlansky, which I found a bit boring. I worried the history of the potato might be boring as well, but this book is great.

You can expect to read about how in Shakespeare's time fewer than 70 out of every baby born made it to their first birthday, only 48 to their 5th birthday, and only about 25 were still alive to see their birthday. The potato changed all of that..... except when potato growing met with difficulties. You will learn about what kind of food the rich and poor alike had access to and how the potato sustained entire populations of people to continue the progress of civilization. You will learn that the potato was viewed in much the same way we often view new tech, the work of the devil, a demoralize esculent to be exact. Such a threat was the potato, clergymen and priests banned their parishioners from eating it.

You can also expect to enjoy a wonderful history not only the Irish Potato Famine but the extremely interesting consequences of the famine on Irish culture. The author also provided a great discussion on breeding potato seeds to end world hunger and what needs to be done to make potato planting in various parts of the world successful.

Great book!

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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No gardening tips...

Interesting tale of the socio-economic impact of the potato. The narrator is easy to listen to.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Who knew?

Where does The Untold History of the Potato rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

I'm amazed how much I learned about history and the world in the process of learning about the potato.

Any additional comments?

Both my husband and I listened to this, fascinated. Who knew the history of the potato would lead, for example, to learning about the original population of the Americas by early humans.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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surprisingly interesting

I learned a lot with this book, and the narrator was easy to listen to. History, cultural influences, botanical issues past and present, introduction to reluctant populations which, in a generation or two, couldn't imagine not having the potato, and it's nutritional qualities were all covered and woven together well.

  • Overall

Boring as a potato

Potato is a boring root vegetable and this book is as boring as its subject. I should have guessed from the title. I thought it would be intriguing to see how this book can make a dry subject interesting, but no, it didn't.

7 of 15 people found this review helpful

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  • John Trew
  • 02-07-10

Warmed up mis-Mash of Cold Potato

Before I wasted my monthly credit on this so-called 'untold' review of scholarly agri-economics articles and famous books like The Great Hunger, garnished with dusty Press clippings and all-too-few anecdotes about his own travels, I was looking forward to an entertaining account of a potentially fascinating foodie subject in the style of Mark Kurlansky's COD: A Biography of the Fish that Changed History. Alas, this is a Potato mis-Mash that can only be recommended to those with an academic interest in the production figures of spuds in Papua New Guinea and the effect of blight in the High Andes. Also, I have lived in Ireland for almost 70 years and I have NEVER hear potatoes described as 'praties' except in an Oirish song written for Americans to sing on \"Saint Paddy's Day\", another term that would make real Irish people cringe. An unappetising cold potato of a book that has given me mental indigestion.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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  • Piotr
  • 03-04-10

history from the point of view of potatoes

As you can guess from the title this is history told from the point of view of potatoes. It is surplice for me how big was this impact of potatoes on the human history. This is a book for everyone how is interested in history. For me this book and her reader is also good for improving my English.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful